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Six conditions for effective local government scrutiny


Effective scrutiny needs the right structure and the right processes but, perhaps most important of all, it needs the right conditions (sometimes called culture). I’ve looked into the research and summarised six conditions that you can find below. Perhaps you could use them as check list to help you think about where your council does well and where your council might need to improve?

Mapping the research

The scrutiny literature, while not extensive, provides prescriptions of what the conditions for good scrutiny might be. Following the process used by Greer et al. (2016) who organised elements of good governance into five components, conditions identified in the literature have been mapped and then organised into six conditions. 

The six conditions, which are presented in table 1, are also organised against three of the institutional rule sets proposed by Lowndes (Lowndes 2005), namely political, constitutional and managerial.  Each of the six conditions is described below.

Table 1: Six conditions for effective local government scrutiny

Political Constitutional Managerial
1. Cross-partisanship within committees

2. Positive councillor engagement with scrutiny

3. Constructive executive-scrutiny relationship

4. Meaningful contribution to governance arrangements

5. Appropriate direct officer support

6. Supportive senior officers

Six conditions for effective local government scrutiny

 

1. Cross partisanship within committees 

While scrutiny can never be ‘a-political’ (councillors are politicians by definition after all) it must nevertheless ‘operate as independently as possible within the local party-political system (Ashworth 2003) and ‘work across the party divide’ (Wilson and Game 2011) if it is to be effective. Scrutiny priorities should reflect common ground between different political positions and reports should reflect consensus as far as possible. As well as being something that the public wishes to see, cross partisanship is more likely to get results as recommendations are translated through council decision making processes. Effective scrutiny, then, depends on ‘the loosening of party group discipline’ (Leach and Copus 2004).

2. Positive councillor engagement with scrutiny

While some councillors have been cynical about the scrutiny role, its success depends on positive councillor engagement and leadership (Snape, Leach et al. 2002). Beyond actively participating, councillors should take ‘a clear lead in deciding the overview and scrutiny programme (Johnson and Hatter 2004), have an ‘independent mindset (MHCLG 2019, Sandford 2019) and ‘be positive about scrutiny (Wilson and Game 2011)’. 

3. Constructive executive-scrutiny relationship

Fundamentally, scrutiny is intended to provide a check and a balance to the executive and, in this context, the relationship between the two is critical. To be effective, therefore, scrutiny must ‘develop a constructive relationship with the executive (Ashworth 2003) who in turn must be responsive to scrutiny (Snape, Leach et al. 2002, Leach and Copus 2004). A constructive relationship will feature early and regular engagement as well as a mechanism for managing disagreement (MHCLG 2019, Sandford 2019). Furthermore, the executive and scrutiny ‘must communicate effectively and openly – with each other and with the public’ (Johnson and Hatter 2004).

4. Meaningful contribution to governance arrangements

If it is to be effective, scrutiny should have a clear role and focus with the organisation ‘recognising scrutiny’s legal and democratic legitimacy’ and communicating this to the public (MHCLG 2019, Sandford 2019). It should not be sidelined but instead it must be given a high status within the local authority (Johnson and Hatter 2004). Scrutiny should ‘possess a wide range of powers (which they are prepared to operationalise)’ (Ashworth 2003). In addition, scrutiny must be pro-active, and not only be about scrutinising decisions’ (Johnson and Hatter 2004)

5. Appropriate direct officer Support

If scrutiny is to be more than ‘committee work’, it should be provided with the necessary support (MHCLG 2019, Sandford 2019) specifically ‘dedicated officer and resource support’ (Wilson and Game 2011). This allows for the ‘management of scrutiny processes’ (Snape, Leach et al. 2002) and for scrutiny to have ‘genuine analytical capacity’ (Leach and Copus 2004). 

 6. Supportive senior officer culture

While parliamentary scrutiny has formally separate officer support, local government scrutiny depends on the support of the same senior officers that support the executive. While these officers are expected to provide the same advice to scrutiny as they would to the executive, this is not always perceived to be the case. To be effective, however, scrutiny depends upon a ‘supportive senior officer culture’ where officers have ‘high level of awareness and understanding of scrutiny (Snape, Leach et al. 2002). In addition, senior officers should be ‘communicating scrutiny’s role and purpose to the wider authority’ (MHCLG 2019, Sandford 2019).

 

References

Ashworth, R. (2003). “Toothless Tigers? Councillor Perceptions of New Scrutiny Arrangements in Welsh Local Government.” Local Government Studies 29(2): 1-18.

Greer, S. L., et al. (2016). “Governance: a framework.” Strengthening Health System Governance: 27-56.

Johnson, K. and W. Hatter (2004). “Realising the Potential of Scrutiny.” New Local Government Network.

Leach, S. and C. Copus (2004). “Scrutiny and the Political Party Group in UK Local Government: New Models of Behaviour.” Public administration 82(2): 331-354.

Lowndes, V. (2005). “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed ….” Policy Studies 26(3-4): 291-309.

MHCLG (2019). Statutory Guidance on Overview and Scrutiny in Local and Combined Authorities, Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government.

Sandford, M. (2019). “Overview and Scrutiny in Local Government.” House of Commons Library, Standard Note SN/PC/06520, updated 22.

Snape, S., et al. (2002). The development of overview and scrutiny in local government, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister London.

Wilson, D. and C. Game (2011). Local government in the United Kingdom, Macmillan International Higher Education.

 

Photo credit Rick Harrison